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Friday, August 31, 2007
Updated: September 6, 1:19 PM ET
Mussina, Schilling being stalked by mortality

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

When the New York Yankees won the 2000 World Series, David Justice, a midseason acquisition from Cleveland, was the difference.

The next year, when the Yankees lost the Series in seven games to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Justice went 2-for-12 with nine strikeouts. A month later, he was traded to the Mets and, a week later, he was traded again to Oakland. He played one season with the A's and just like that, at age 36, he was gone from the game.

Mike Mussina

Mussina

Starting Pitcher
New York Yankees

Profile

2007 Season Stats
GM IP W-L BB K ERA
23 123.2 8-10 29 76 5.53

"David was one of my favorite players. He could have played three or four more years," Yankees superscout Gene "Stick" Michael once told me. "But he didn't want to make the adjustments it would have taken. He was so used to being a great player that he didn't really want to be out there if he couldn't be everything he used to be."

Justice provides a parallel for the current crisis of his old teammate, Mike Mussina, who after a painful three-start stretch where Mussina gave up 19 earned runs and 25 hits in just 9 2/3 innings, was for the first time since becoming an established starter removed from the starting rotation for nonperformance. The numbers were indeed frightful, and Mussina's closest admirers have admitted that because of the obvious looming question of whether after 17 years and 247 career victories his career is finished, Mussina's decline has been painful to watch.

There is no escaping the anguish of aging, especially in professional sports where the decline of a player is so embarrassingly public. And it is particularly painful in baseball, where there is no help defense to hide a hitter who can no longer keep up, no defensive scheme to mask a pitcher whose talent has abandoned his experience.

By the end of three days at Yankee Stadium, even a Yankees sweep of the Red Sox was overshadowed by inevitable, difficult confrontations with age, from Mussina's hopeless futility to the realization that Curt Schilling, one of the great big-game pitchers of his time, is not so very far behind him.

Both are being stalked by mortality, and before a resolute Schilling was beaten 5-0 on Thursday, Mussina stood before his locker: wounded, diminished, human. He apologized to the press for waiting two days to address his demotion, an understandable delay considering both his situation and its implications.

He was devastated.

"I've taken it pretty hard," Mussina said. "For someone who's been in a rotation for 17 years, it's been really hard. I've been struggling badly, which is probably why I needed a couple of days … You get a bad attitude and that's where I was. Every ball I threw I thought something bad was going to happen, whether it would be a ball. If I threw a good pitch, I thought it would get fouled off or it would be a hit."

The pure numbers would suggest that at the age of 38, Mussina's career is over. When his velocity hovered around 85 mph during the spring, the Yankees supported Mussina, reporting that he was simply building up his arm strength. Now, with Mussina's ERA over his last three starts at 17.68, explanations became less complicated and the questions are clearer: Can a right-hander, especially in the American League, locate his pitches for 185 innings per year?

Curt Schilling

Schilling

Starting Pitcher
Boston Red Sox

Profile

2007 Season Stats
GM IP W-L BB K ERA
20 125.1 8-6 21 86 4.02

"Sure, he can do it, because he's got the smarts to do it, and the desire to do it," said Orel Hershiser, the former Dodgers and Indians great. "I pitched until I was 42 years old. It's all about differential. You can throw 85 miles an hour if you can develop a 71 mile-an-hour curve or changeup."

Some point to the wondrous Orlando Hernandez, who at 42 is having a superb season, but hasn't thrown in the 90s consistently for years. El Duque and Mussina were Yankees teammates in 2001, 2002 and 2004.

But there are major differences. Hernandez throws from a variety of arm angles, making his release point difficult for hitters to locate. Mussina's release point does not change. Hernandez also pitches in the National League.

Hernandez has greater movement on his fastball, while Mussina's fastball is relatively straight. And perhaps the biggest difference between the two is that consistently, Hernandez has had great success against right-handed hitters, while Mussina is being devoured by them. Over the past three seasons, from 2004 to 2006, right-handers hit .218 against El Duque. Right-handers are batting .161 against him this season.

Against Mussina, right-handers from 2004 to 2006 hit .279 and this season are batting .302.

Less clear for Mussina is the mental game. Hershiser said Mussina would go through a "transition" period where he would have to find comfort with his diminished skills, but admitted that baseball was less fun when you can't rely on success. But the greater question is whether great players can tolerate being merely average. Justice could not, and decided to quit because of it.

"When you start your career, your talent is greater than your experience," said Ken Singleton, a former All-Star outfielder who hit .282 over 15 big league seasons. At the middle of your career, the two sides even out, and at the end, you have all this experience, but the talent is gone or near gone and you're not sure you can still do it. For me, when my career was winding down, I had offers to keep playing, but I couldn't do it.

"I could see it with foul balls. I would be in the batter's box and foul off a pitch I knew I used to hit, and say 'I used to be able to hit that ball.' But now it wasn't happening and the question for me was whether it was going to be enough for me. I just couldn't deal with waving through fastballs."

Mussina, like most players, appears to fall into the Singleton category.

"I hope I don't need a severe change," Mussina said, "because I'm old and you can't teach me new tricks."

Eventually, the time is coming when I won't be able to do this anymore. That's not too far in the future.

-- Mike Mussina

Schilling, especially during struggling times, symbolizes the ace mentality. He is no front-runner, and for those who actually like baseball instead of the simple sensation of seeing their team win or their favorite player dominate, is at his artistic best when on a given day his pitches aren't exactly cooperating. On Thursday, the power pitcher weaved his way through a Yankees order without topping 88 mph. He gave up long outs to the warning track, even to the opposite field left by left-handed hitters. He grunted, massaging and cajoling his pitching through the game, giving up only two solo homers in seven innings to Robinson Cano while salvaging innings with stuff that would have destroyed pitchers of a lesser constitution.

Before the Yankees' 4-3 win Wednesday night where the victorious 45-year old starter Roger Clemens continued to successfully wrestle time, the great essayist Roger Angell sat in the Yankee Stadium press room. Angell, who is 86 and needn't fret about decreased velocity being exposed to 55,000 crazies, told me, "No, but I worry about it myself." We talked of Schilling, Mussina and when it is time to say goodbye, and I was reminded of a paragraph he wrote for The New Yorker in October, 1971:

A missing name in this account, it may be noted, is that of Willie Mays. He played in all four games and did not exactly or entirely fail: two doubles, one homer, a stolen base, four hits. But these totals do not suggest the true level of his contribution, and by this, for once, I mean that he was less of a player than the statistics suggest -- a much older player who looked every year and month of his 40 years -- a player gone quite gray-faced with exhaustion and pain and the pressures of leadership. Willie has seen all of his splendid early-season triumphs worn away to bare competence; in the late going he had managed but four hits in 40 at-bats, had gone a whole month without a homer, and had been striking out almost half the time. He apologized to his fans at the end of the regular season. During the playoffs, after I had seen Mays taking called third strikes or trying to bunt his way aboard or slicing a weak little pop hit on a fastball he could no longer get around on, I began -- for the first time in my life and with enormous sadness -- not to want him to come up to the plate. I dreaded it, in fact, and I was embarrassed by the feeling and ashamed of myself. But I still feel the same way, and I think it should be said: hang them up, Willie, please. Retire.

Barring catastrophe, the Red Sox will make the playoffs and October could provide Schilling his last opportunity to perform, the lion still fierce but softening, grudgingly admitting he may give way after -- even perhaps during -- this final hunt. Mussina's situation is far worse. He may pitch, but will not be counted on for important situations that were once his staple, and if the kids who replace him excel, Mussina may not be a big part of the Yankees ever again. His biggest supporters in the organization shy away from watching the end. If he has a second act, it may have to wait until next season.

"Eventually, the time is coming when I won't be able to do this anymore," Mussina said. "That's not too far in the future. This has been tough, tough, when you're on the road, sitting in a hotel room by yourself. It eats you up more [than] if you were home with your kids."

Sunsets, in other words, are pretty only at the beach.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.